Reading Matters

‘Thunderstruck’ and the teen brain

Elizabeth McCracken
Elizabeth McCracken Aspen Public Radio

Two things you should read in tandem, and each will further illumine the other.

Read first, perhaps, the prize-winning short story “Thunderstruck,” in Elizabeth McCracken’s just released paperback edition of her short story collection of the same name (Dial Press, $16). I read this story aloud to my husband during a recent car trip to the beach, and we marveled again, as we have for years, at how unaware parents can be to the lives their adolescent children are really living. Never mind how we interpret their behavior.

Because of their almost-13-year-old’s recent erratic behavior at home, the parents, Wes and Laura, impulsively decide to take both daughters to Paris for the summer. “In Paris, Helen became a child again. She was skinny, pubescent, not the lean dangerous blade of a near-teen she’d seemed at home, in skin-tight blue jeans and oversized T-shorts.” Sweet success!

Hah! So they thought. Until they discover, through a nightmarish early-morning phone call from the American Hospital, that Helen has been sneaking out at night. And the last sneak-out has proven to be, well, no spoilers here.

Take a few deep breaths, then grab the Aug. 31 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Neuroscience of Teen-agers,” and you will better understand the short story (and the behavior of the teens in your own life). Kolbert reviews mainly Frances Jensen’s “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.” (HarperCollins). The Teenage Brain

In short, Jensen uses MRI studies to show that adolescents suffer from the cerebral equivalent of defective spark plugs, which makes them pleasure seekers and risk takers extraordinaire. If they survive adolescence, most teens typically outgrow the behavior (or their brains do.)

By the way, McCracken, a National Book Award finalist for her novel, “The Giant’s House,” won the $20,000 annual Story Prize for “Thunderstruck and Other Stories,” this collection of nine tales about life-altering experiences and loss.